Last Day at Work: The aviation worker whose long journey through the ranks saw him eventually make it as airline captain
In the series where Channel NewsAsia profiles individuals leaving the workforce after long careers, Amir Yusof speaks to former Scoot pilot Chung Choon Yin who had to work hard to fulfill an ambition to become a captain.
SINGAPORE: Something unusual happened on board Scoot flight TR 181 on Mar 6, before it left Nanjing airport to head towards Singapore.
The flight captain, Chung Choon Yin, was asked by his crew-in-charge Yong Hui Yi to step out of the cockpit into the passenger cabin.
When Mr Chung walked out of the flight deck, the flight's passengers and crew were there to surprise him with a farewell party. It was the veteran pilot's last flight after more than four decades in aviation.
Ms Yong meticulously planned the celebration, bringing on board colourful balloons and customised banners. She and the other crew members invited passengers to join in.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia in an interview recently, Mr Chung said he felt grateful for the jubilant send-off.
“It was a pleasant surprise! Even the passengers joined the celebration. My cabin crew had good rapport with the passengers … and they were more than happy to celebrate the occasion with me,” he said.
But even then, Mr Chung knew that his last task as captain was not over, and he had to keep focused to ensure the journey went smoothly.
“The job is never done until the aircraft comes in, and the (wheel) chocks are on and the checks are over,” said Mr Chung.
“So during the flight itself, I had no time to think about retirement. That’s the beauty and requirement of this job. You cannot let your mind wander, so basically I was concentrating until the flight was over,” he added.
BALANCING WORK AND STUDY
Mr Chung's journey to captain was not a smooth flight. He spent most of his life in the 1970s burning the midnight oil.
He spent his days as an aircraft maintenance engineer, servicing Singapore Airlines (SIA) planes on the ground. At night, he hit the books, striving to finish his diploma at Singapore Polytechnic.
More than 40 years later, Mr Chung finished his career with the SIA Group on a high, ending his long journey as a captain with budget airline Scoot. Yet it was those moments when he had to struggle at the beginning that Mr Chung recalled most vividly.
“From eight (am) to five (pm), we were on the SIA premises, at the airplane hangar or apron servicing unit. And from 6 (pm) to 10 (pm), we’d have to go to the polytechnic to take our diploma classes. This went on for five years,” he said.
Mr Chung and his batch of apprentice aircraft maintenance engineers were being sponsored by Singapore Airlines to complete their studies and become fully qualified engineers.
But during the course of his work, he had the opportunity to interact with the SIA flight crew, and this piqued his interest in flying the aircraft he was working on.
“I had the opportunity to speak to pilots … over time I saw familiar faces and I asked them what the job is all about. I got interested in flying and I told myself that I wanted to become part of the flight crew,” said the 64-year-old.
After much persuasion from his colleagues, Mr Chung took the pilot conversion course in 1980 and became a flight engineer – his first role inside the cockpit.
READ: Last Day at Work - 'Education is in my DNA’ says school principal as she draws the curtain on a long career
FROM ENGINEER TO CAPTAIN
He continued on the same trajectory and became a first officer in 1990. Subsequently, he excelled in SIA’s command course and was appointed captain in 2001. He joined Scoot when he turned 62, and spent his remaining two years as a pilot with the airline.
His whole journey from apprentice engineer to captain took 30 years, with roadblocks and obstacles along the way.
For instance, when SIA offered him the opportunity to convert from being flight engineer to a first officer in 1984, he turned the company down because he could not afford surviving on a training allowance.
“I was sponsoring my sister who was studying in Canada and my mother was not well, so I could not afford to be subjected to a pay cut during my (conversion) training,” he said.
Mr Chung’s engineering background helped him become a better pilot. He said he better understood any defects in the system, and issues that cropped up when flying.
“I am able to understand the constraints of the (engineering) department better, and this helps the company build better synergy between the flying and engineering department,” he said.
Mr Chung’s former colleague at Scoot, first officer Brennen Kho who flew with him four times when the pair were at SIA, told Channel NewsAsia that Mr Chung’s “old school” background meant he had “very strict standards”.
“As a former engineer, his technical knowledge of the aircraft is way up there,” said Mr Kho.
The 39-year-old added that Captain Chung’s rise through the ranks taught him not to be “too comfortable in one place”.
“He wanted to move from the back seat to the front seat, and it’s admirable that he decided to step out of his comfort zone, and try something new,” said Mr Kho.
“It’s something that we can all learn (from), even for me as a first officer on the right-hand seat. I get comfortable in my place and when it’s time for me to take the left-hand seat as a captain, I might find it a little tough,” he added with a smile.
Besides being a role model on the flight deck, Mr Kho also lauded his former colleague’s personality. He said that Mr Chung was “dead serious” inside the cockpit, but when he was out of uniform, he was the friendliest colleague.
“The thing is, he’s really, really, really generous. He will invite his co-pilots and cabin crew out for drinks during stopovers and he’ll always pay for everything. It got to the point where some of us told him: ‘If you’re going to continue doing this, we’re not going to come out with you anymore.’”
But Mr Chung insisted that he was merely perpetuating a tradition, as his former captains would treat him to meals that he could not afford during his earlier years. He made a habit of buying a big box of snacks from Old Chang Kee at Changi Airport for his crew before every departure.
“Everything comes to a full circle. During night stops sometimes, I remember wanting to eat at certain places that would be too costly for me at the time. My captains would say ‘Come, don’t worry about the cost of it. Let’s go for a meal’,” he said.
“When I became captain, I thought it was time to pay back (the goodwill). I was treated well, so now it’s my turn. I think it’s a good gesture to buy a meal for the crew at a night stop. This practice has gone down very well with crew members. Everybody’s happy and we are able to work much closer as a team,” Mr Chung added.
AVOIDING CLOUDS FOR THE TEAM
Fostering teamwork was an important aspect of his job as a captain, Mr Chung said, highlighting that a captain is in command of not only the flight deck – but the whole aircraft. He had to coordinate with cabin crew, ground crew, maintenance engineers and air traffic controllers to ensure the flight goes ahead smoothly.
For instance, a captain is responsible for making the work of the cabin crew easier by minimising turbulence when meals are being served.
“You've got to take note of when the cabin services are going on. If you see a patch of clouds, you cannot just fly straight through them or you’re going to give the cabin crew a hard time trying to serve the passengers with their meal,” he said.
“You must learn about the environment before your flight so that you can plan the safest and smoothest course for your route,” Mr Chung added.
AN EMBARRASSING LESSON
While his last flight as a pilot went smoothly, Mr Chung recalled how his first flight was a “little bit of an embarrassment”.
It was his inaugural flight as a trainee pilot, and he was scheduled to fly from Singapore to Zurich. But due to his own mix-up, he was still at home when it was about one hour to departure.
“I got a call from control asking, ‘Hey CY, where are you?’ I said I was at home,” recalled Mr Chung.
"But luckily the place I was staying at was very near the airport and I was able to get to the aircraft in time - 15-20 minutes before departure,” he added.
His captain for the flight was really understanding, and he was let “off the hook”, but following that incident, Mr Chung resolved to never be late for work again.
According to Mr Kho, Mr Chung has a reputation for being a strict captain, and would demand a high standard from his trainees and first officers.
“He was known as one for the four heavenly kings in SIA, so trainees and qualified first officers back then were all very fearful of him. As a trainee, when I knew I was going to be rostered with him for a flight, I knew I had to really be on my toes. I was very nervous actually and when he first appeared in the crew room, my heart was just going nuts,” said Mr Kho.
But Mr Kho recalled that the flight went fine and Mr Chung even treated him to a massage when they arrived at their destination, Bali.
On the way back to Singapore, Mr Kho said he missed out on some procedures. He was given feedback but maintained that he was not screamed or shouted at.
“Of course he came down hard (on me) … but at the end of the flight he gave me a pat on the back and said ‘Good job, just keep it up’. He’ll bring your confidence down and then back up again. This means something because not every captain is able to do that,” he added.
Mr Chung acknowledged that he was a strict mentor, but explained that it was because Scoot and the SIA Group as a whole has a strong safety record, and for this to be sustained, the pilots “must be disciplined” and “cannot condone complacency, even for a minute”.
“I’ve been known for being strict, but to me there’s no two ways about it. There are 400 lives with you, and some of the passengers could be your relatives or loved ones,” he said.
“It’s a job that you cannot ‘play play’. You must give your 100 per cent at all times,” Mr Chung added.
EYEING MENTORSHIP ROLE
Although he has flown his last commercial plane, Mr Chung maintains that his chapter in aviation has not come to a close. He wants to serve as a flight simulator instructor with Singapore Airlines because he believes that he can mentor future pilots
Mr Chung noted that not many cadets with SIA eventually graduate as pilots. He believes that he can play a part in helping them individually with their technique.
“Sometimes a trainee might not be seated correctly. He or she might be placing (his or her) heels on the floorboard .. that makes it much harder to control the path of the aircraft,” he said.
“During my days at SIA, I had quite a lot of trainees who had difficulty getting through certain phases of their training. But once you sit down with them, you will be surprised by how the trainees’ faults could be corrected, most of the time, by giving them different pointers,” added Mr Chung.
He also had words of encouragement for aspiring pilots, saying that they should consider the job if they could fulfill certain requirements – such as maintaining a healthy diet and staying away from alcoholic drinks at least 12 hours before a flight.
“You have to keep a good and clean lifestyle. If you think you are able to accept this, I would say go for it. Why not? It’s a rewarding job. At the end of the day, when flight is over, you don’t have to bring worries home,” he said.
Mr Chung added that he had no regrets with how his career has turned out.
“I would say I am a (more) complete pilot – in the sense that I was a maintenance engineer before, and then a pilot,” he said.
"So I started off with the company when I was 18, and now I’m 65. I’ve seen it all. Given another chance I would do it all again.”